Bioshock, and the Big Plot Twist

Bioshock, and the Big Plot Twist

Interesting post-mortem article on the original Bioshock over at Eurogamer.

One part stuck out at me as interesting:

Hellquist had the idea of making the control a spoken phrase. Initially he used a single world, ‘Excelsior’, which later became ‘Cedo Maiori’ (“I yield to a greater person”). But these phrases too obviously signalled Atlas’s treachery. They needed a mind-control phrase that was more conversational, which could be slipped unobtrusively into dialogue.

If you know Bioshock, you know this is the genesis of the ‘Would You Kindly?’ twist towards the end of the game. It’s a famous one, and this is a fascinating bit on the writing around that moment, but there is a narrative agenda here that isn’t explicitly stated:

The BIG PLOT TWIST was built into the narrative from very early on.

This is not a surprising revelation. System Shock 2 had the same kind of Big Plot Twist that Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite have. This is a design trope of the Irrational team.

What this got me thinking about are the very, very specific pros and cons that come with a Big Plot Twist. If you know your Big Plot Twists, you know that the ‘pros’ are the infamous WTF moment, and the mind-shattering bits that immediately follow.

Oh, but the cons. The cons! A Big Plot Twist hedges on the audience assuming things about the the story, and then it pulls the rug out. If you alter the world your protagonist is in, you are telling the audience that the adventure to that point, basically, was a lie.

Look at the fervent backlash to M. Night Shyalaman’s movies for great examples of what happens when someone constructs a movie around a lie, in service of a plot twist. What are the odds of you pulling that off brilliantly once? What about twice?

I don’t have any problem with Big Plot Twists, though I personally prefer another type of twist that better serves the world of a story. I’ll call it The Revelatory Twist. A Revelatory Twist is at the heart of most noir films. Where the Big Plot Twist leads us to believe the world is a certain way, and then reveals it was all a lie, the Revelatory Twist merely shows how the various things we’ve seen so far are connected. Both are valid beats in a story, but one is in service of the world, while the other serves merely to surprise.

Remember, you can only be surprised once.